Fortunately, I had Brewstoria to help me. Founded by Astoria resident Ryan Crook in 2010, this homebrew club has since grown rapidly and had been looking for a chance to involve a bunch of its members in a larger, collaborative brew day. As for the ingredients, I decided to challenge them with spices from Thailand, additives that aren’t commonly found in beer recipes but do appear at many a grocer across Queens—ginger, Thai basil, cilantro, chili pepper, and lemongrass. Theoretically, any one of these adjuncts could work with the right beer, and I was curious to found out just how creative the Brewstoria crew could be. Plus, if this borough really is the most diverse in a city that already represents America as melting pot, it only seemed fitting to add a dash of international flavor to the proverbial brew kettle. To my delight the group didn’t just accept the idea, they embraced it.
Being the industrious, let’s-get-right-to-it, sort of people that homebrewers usually are, they managed to make arrangements to use the kitchen and courtyard at The Foundry, an event space in Long Island City. And by the time I turned up on a sunny Sunday morning last February, things were nearly in full swing. Six teams had set up at indoor and outdoor brew stations, and the air was already thick with promising smells. Fittingly, I also caught a few stanzas from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song floating from a pair of portable speakers.
Naturally, there were samples of other homebrewed beers to try, batches that members had made and brought to enliven the occasion. Not that any such precautions were needed. Moods ran high and the energy level was even higher. Throughout the day, people called out times and temperatures at regular intervals, and shouted things like: “Check the gravity!” Once all six batches were underway, a hot, hearty potluck lunch became an opportunity to tell jokes and swap stories about brewing successes and failures. By mid-afternoon, as refreshments started to run low, a vote was taken and the decision made to send the visiting writer out for more beer.
Which isn’t to say these were people who lacked focus. Collectively, Brewstoria has several decades of experience turning water, malted barley, hops, and yeast into something drinkable. In fact, Matthew Schaefer, a tall, talkative individual who practices law by day, has just published a new handbook on homebrewing entitled The Illustrated Guide to Brewing Beer. In other words, the recipes that each of the teams described to me held real promise. Granted, most of the brewers admitted that they were using Asian ingredients for the first time, but as I watched them work and listened to them describe the results they were hoping for, I had nothing but confidence in their methods.
“I wanted a nice light beer,” Matt told me. “Really really light and very clean with a low hop profile,” he continued. So I went with Cluster, and decided to do a pale ale with lemongrass and ginger at the end.”
Meanwhile, others were taking the experiment to greater extremes. Alex Merahn, a homebrewer who could be mistaken for a young Mario Batali—Crocs, apron, and all—told me that brewing four different beers for his wedding had solidified his love for the activity. He was planning to add Thai basil and lime to a saison, a French farmhouse ale that is traditionally a rather spicy and dry style consumed in the summertime.
“Brewstoria is great for learning,” he said. “And it definitely motivates you to fix your beers. I think all of us have become better brewers.”
Back inside the Foundry, Kathleen Woestehoff and her husband Brian were keeping a watchful eye on their project, an imperial stout that would rely on the puny but potent bird’s eye chili for an extra kick. Rather than leave everything to chance and execution however, they decided to start with a style they already knew well, a rich, complex stout with origins in the eighteenth-century Russian court. Still up for debate was whether or not to age their concoction on oak chips soaked in Sang Som, the aromatic, dark rum that’s ubiquitous at bars and restaurants in the Thai capital.
“As long as we don’t go overboard with the peppers and make it a Scoville nightmare it should be fine,” Brian declared. “But it’s going to have fairly strong flavors. I don’t think they would drink it there.”
Perhaps not in Thailand, but I was willing to bet that a beer like theirs would find more than a few fans in Queens. Not long before Crook decided to found Brewstoria, bringing like-minded hobbyists together for monthly meetings, a small but noticeable influx of craft beer bars began to appear across the borough. From the impressive draught list at Long Island City’s Alewife to the extensive bottle selection at the Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, the borough long known for its diversity has finally opened up its borders to the long line of American brewers queuing for entry. This change, by all appearances, has been warmly welcomed. And in many ways, it reflects a much larger shift in tastes that has swept the country in the past decade.
“I used to hate beer,” remarked Kathleen. “Now I’m not surprised to come home and find my entire freezer packed with hops.” She smiled broadly, then added a few words of clarification for my benefit. “We’ve been working on a double IPA.”
All photos courtesy of Brewstoria.